A magical messenger

A magical messenger

Karen discusses her experience of losing a dear friend, but finding special guidance in her life all the same.

Soon after my friend, Heidi, died from breast cancer in July 2012, a dragonfly appeared in the garden. As big as the palm of my hand, it flitted about for an uncanny amount of time. The children were wide-eyed as it danced. Even my husband couldn’t help a look of wonder as it circled us. This magical moment had to be a sign, surely?

A bit of a stretch for an atheist, I’ll admit, but in that moment my gut felt it. A while back Heidi had given me a kitsch desk ornament decorated with dragonflies, telling me to, ‘Always believe in your dreams.’ She was off work, enduring chemo, through that Spring. On her better days we’d head out into the countryside for a picnic of egg sandwiches, tea, and cakes. We strolled, talked, and took photos for the Countryfile calendar competition. Lying on our bellies at the edge of a pond, we laughed and cursed as we tried to snap damselflies and dragonflies at rest.

Her death hit me hard, but as the months turned into years her absence made me appreciate what I still had – time. I thought of the dreams she’d never fulfil and the one I was letting pass me by…

When I Grow Up, I Want to be Enid Blyton

I wrote as a child and had wanted to start again for a long time, but feared failure. No more though. I joined a local creative writing group and within four months I was plotting my first novel. The idea came to me in my local park in that meditative state that dog-walking can induce. Soon my head was full of tree spirits, witches and demons. From then on, dragonflies appeared on every visit to the park and each time this happened a lightness filled my heart. Logic told me they must have been there before and I hadn’t noticed them, but the part of me that grew up dreaming about The Enchanted Wood thought otherwise.

That whole year I was writing the novel, I saw dragonflies everywhere, often several times in a week. Friends and family noticed them too, making me feel a little saner.

A Mountain Climbed

With the manuscript complete, I felt an enormous sense of achievement. I’d climbed the literary equivalent of a mountain but now, at the top, I could see it was just a foothill amongst major peaks. Off it went into the world to a few handpicked literary agents. And then to some more and more still, as the rejections rolled in. It was hard to keep positive, but Heidi’s desk ornament served me well in that period, becoming a mantra for persistence. Then I sent a submission to JK Rowling’s agent, thinking, ‘Why not?’

Out dog walking with my parents a few weeks later, a large dragonfly flew out of the trees and sailed around us. My mum hadn’t seen one so big or so close and was rooted to the spot in awe. We were still talking about it when we reached a bench and had a rest in the sunshine. That’s when I checked my phone. An email from the agent sat in my inbox. I didn’t want to open it; the not-knowing, the sense of possibility was better than the rejection I knew would be inside. But I opened it all the same. They wanted to see the complete manuscript, and a chapter breakdown, and have four weeks exclusivity. I could barely breathe.

The following six weeks were the longest of my life. Coping with the agony of hope versus the likely outcome was exhausting. I just wanted an answer because I wasn’t sleeping and couldn’t concentrate on anything else until I had one. Then it arrived. A no, but with feedback and a request to see all future work. Published writer friends tried to reassure me this was a positive response to a first novel, but it was hard to take heed. I shelved the book. Taking it to pieces seemed more complicated than starting from scratch. I’d learnt a lot over the last eighteen months, so was ready to start a new project.

A Nudge in the Right Direction

At the same time, I was considering going into teaching. I needed to earn some money, and the bursary for science teachers was appealing. Deep down I knew I didn’t want to, but there were few options for a mum returning to work after a decade at home.

I was stewing on what to do when I went to my next writing group at a local pub. As I walked in, I saw that Nicky who ran the group was excited. A book deal, maybe? She took me to one side, asked me to hold my hand out, and dropped a tiny gold dragonfly with a red jewel in its middle onto my palm. I was confused. She was bursting to tell the tale. On her way to the bar she’d felt an object dropping down her front, then she’d scuffed her foot against something. She thought one of her earrings had fallen off, but when she bent down, there was the dragonfly.

She was certain it was for me, a sign to keep going. Being a fan of the supernatural and the unknown, she was in no doubt. Her enthusiastic retelling of the story to the rest of the group and their delight at it wore away my cynicism. I slipped it into my purse, where it remains.

Maybe it was a nudge from Heidi or maybe not, but lying in bed I suddenly thought, ‘Why study to become a teacher? Why not study writing instead?’ It felt revelatory but so right. Within four weeks I’d secured a place at The University of Leicester doing a part-time MA in Creative Writing.

I’m Still with You

As the beginning of my second year loomed, I was working on a new novel called A Dragonfly Heart. It was a sunny September afternoon when I nipped into the garden to collect the washing. There on a towel sat a large dragonfly, the same kind as my garden visitor just after Heidi’s death.

I couldn’t help but whisper, ‘Hello, Heidi,’ before I called the kids to come and see it. We spent over an hour outside and it ended up resting on my daughter’s hand.

Dragonflies and Heidi have become weaved into the fabric of my writing now. Returning to my childhood passion has been such a joy and I can’t imagine ever stopping. My dragonfly nudges have kept me positive or made me stop and think at key moments. Would I have found my way to this point otherwise? Who knows? But I like to think not.